On Monday, the Atlantic Council organized a briefing for its global leadership on Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner Group rebellion, its potential consequences around the world, and how the drama could unfold next. Top experts and former officials helped make sense of the stunning events—and what they mean for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, Russia’s relations with other countries, and its war against Ukraine. Below, edited and condensed for length and clarity, is the conversation, moderated by Frederick Kempe, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. Watch the full briefing here.
Stephen Hadley, Chairman, International Advisory Board, Atlantic Council; Former US National Security Advisor
Ambassador John Herbst, Senior Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council; Former US Ambassador to Ukraine
President Kersti Kaljulaid, Member, International Advisory Board, Atlantic Council; Former President of Estonia
Angela Stent, Senior Advisor at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University
General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.), Member, Board of Directors, Atlantic Council; Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe
General Curtis Scaparrotti (Ret.), Member, Board of Directors, Atlantic Council; Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe
FREDERICK KEMPE: Stephen Hadley, how have you been working this weekend’s events through your head? And if were you briefing the president of the United States right now, how might you do that?
STEPHEN HADLEY: This is a work in progress, a lot of uncertainty. We’re through act one. We don’t know whether this is a one-act play or a five-act play. We don’t really know the terms of this settlement that has been worked out with Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing. We don’t know whether it will be complied with. But even if it turns out to be act one of a one-act play, this has been an earthquake within the Russian political system and it’s going to take a while for its effects to be clear as—over time as it plays out over time.
So in light of that, one of the things the president would say would be: Well, what are our objectives here? And I think our objectives in this situation are twofold.
One, to continue to try to get Russian forces out of Ukraine and to assure that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and viability as a secure and prosperous state is maintained.
And the second objective, I think, is we do not want to encourage a Russian civil war. The consequences of that for regional instability, for refugee flows into our allies, from questions about who controls the nuclear weapons, these are troubling questions that we’d like to avoid.
So those would be the objectives.
Second question is: Well, what do you say about this publicly? Because the administration is going to have to talk about it publicly. And I think the statements made over the weekend are pretty close to right—watching the situation, internal matter to be resolved among the Russians themselves. But I think we should emphasize that it’s further evidence that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a strategic mistake for Russia, that Russian troops should leave Ukraine—whether they are withdrawn or whether it’s 1917 style, they put down their arms and they decide to walk home—and because Russia clearly has to attend to a lot of internal affairs. That’s clear from what we’ve seen over the week.
The president would ask about what to watch for going forward. Well, Putin has clearly been weakened by this. Prigozhin’s forces got within something like 150 miles of Moscow. They received tacit support, I would have to say, or at least not active opposition from the Russian security forces. That’s a problem for Putin internally, and I would expect you’re going to see some purges of his security services and further crackdown internally. His problem is whether he can pull it off. It’s a little bit like kids playing with mud pies. Sometimes, you know, the tighter you squeeze, the more mud squeezes out between your fingers. We’ll have to see how Putin does.
I think the other thing for Putin is he’s going to have to try to frustrate the Ukrainian counteroffensive, because the more Ukrainians are able to take back territory from Russian forces the more Putin looks weak and the more the Ukrainian war looks like, as Prigozhin has been saying, a strategic mistake for Russia.
There’s a question about Prigozhin. He’s got to stay alive. He’s been called traitor by Putin. People who are called traitors by Putin don’t usually have a very long life expectancy. He’s got to decide whether this is over or whether this is act one of his effort to confront the minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, and General Valery Gerasimov, chief the Russian General Staff, and whether he wants to continue this campaign or not, and if so how he would do it.
There’s a question about the future of the Wagner Group. They’re supposed to be either demobilized or brought within the Russian Ministry of Defense. Will they do that? Will they continue to be a force? If not in Ukraine, what about their continued presence in Africa? A lot of uncertainties there.
Questions for Ukraine: This is potentially an opportunity for them to more effectively push their counteroffensive, because if you are already demoralized Russian troops on the frontline with Ukraine and you look at what’s going on at home, it may make you even less willing to fight. That may be an opportunity for Ukraine.
Questions for China: Xi Jinping cannot afford for Putin to go down, and China and Xi may decide that the best way to save Putin is to put pressure on him to bring this war to a close, which has to involve withdrawal of Russian troops. Question of how this affects China.
And finally, I would expect the administration to be going around with friends and allies, but particularly with fence-sitters around the world—South Africa, Brazil, India—saying: Do you really want to be neutral and be perceived as supporting someone who is as weak as Putin? This was a bad bet. Now it’s time for you to change your bet.
Seems to me those are the things that the president would want to be watching to understand where this is heading over the longer term.
FREDERICK KEMPE: The way it’s been described to me by one really interesting analyst is that there were four sorts of power centers. One of them was the FSB, special ops, all the troops around there, including the presidential guard, which is a very terrific bunch of troops around Putin that he can rely on. The second power is the military, the Defense Ministry. The third is the Wagner Group. And the fourth is the Chechens.
What we do know is if these are the power pillars, that they’ve been shaken; that whatever stability there was, however fragile it was, it’s shaken. So how unstable does the situation remain? And then what role does the president of the United States with his allies play in this kind of situation?
STEPHEN HADLEY: Unknown. So why did Putin do this deal six or eight hours after he called Prigozhin a traitor and promised the most draconian kinds of punishment? I think there are probably three reasons.
One, the progress Prigozhin made moving towards Moscow and the fact that it was really fairly unobstructed… if you look at the preparations that were going on in Moscow, they took this push very seriously. I think that was one reason.
Secondly, I think Putin realized that the longer this went on, the more likely Prigozhin’s narrative that the Ukraine war was a mistake—that Ukraine did not threaten Russia, and the brotherly relations between Ukrainians and Russians could have been restored without force—might catch on within Russia.
And third, I think Putin had to worry about schisms and breaches within the security services themself.
Putin has been balancing these various groups you talked about for a long time and fairly effectively. He either didn’t see this one coming or didn’t step in soon enough. Where this goes depends a little bit on whether Putin regains his footing, is able to do a crackdown and a purge for those that were disloyal, and is able to restore the sort of balancing act that he was doing before. So in some sense, his future is in some measure in his own hands.
In terms of the US role, I think it’s very difficult to know what’s going on, and I think our effort to try to affect what’s going on from the outside just would justify all kinds of anti-Western, anti-US narratives that Putin has based his rhetorical strategy on. So my guess is the administration would and should stay out of this matter.
This is the opportunity to accelerate help to Ukraine. This is the opportunity for the Ukrainians to exploit what looks like chaos in Russia and maybe a degraded morale among Russian troops to try to effectively retake Ukrainian territory from Russian forces if they can.
FREDERICK KEMPE: So I’m going to turn next to views on what is going on inside Russia. President Kaljulaid, how have you been looking at this over the weekend and in general?
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: The Estonian people have been extremely happy to be watching this time from the front row rather than being on the scene, like thirty years ago. But I also have to say that many people, interestingly—even if it is the only happy-end military coup in the last century, the one which we witnessed 1991—are drawing parallels. And many were actually hoping that this would be the end, and people are quite disappointed that it wasn’t. But of course, well, you don’t get the fairytale military coup every thirty years in Russia.
What is very clear from here is that Putin is now weak and he’s much more perceived to be weak by people inside Russia. And if we were concentrating only on Putin and what he might do, then I think we are overlooking the fact that he’s not alone. There is a regime, what Putin actually is presenting and is representing. But that means this regime is now fully aware that Putin cannot project power and might inside the country, and this is becoming critical. And that is why I think that his days at the helm of Russia are also relatively numbered.
But do not be fooled; we might be seeing somebody else there, but it will still be the same regime, which knows very well that Putin has no way out, but Russia and the regime has a way out. And the way out, the logical way out, is that Putin is somehow replaced. Things might happen. I mean, things might naturally happen. And they might want, then, of course, to end the war in Ukraine, but also for us to believe that this is now the new Russia, and therefore start a new cycle, and therefore start to rebuild Russian military forces having learned from the catastrophe in Ukraine and continue with their imperialistic ambition. This, for me, is the real danger scenario from Russia now.
I’m less worried about Russia turning into a tribal kind of war terrain of domestic war because, frankly speaking, outside of Prigozhin and Wagner, there don’t seem to be contenders who would be able to amass such a force and march on Moscow. So if Prigozhin truly is out of the picture—and he might well be out of the picture, alive or soon dead; I do also think that his life expectancy is not long—there simply doesn’t seem to be anybody else who would be able to stage this kind of coup.
But regime change will not happen, but presenting us a new face might very well happen. And then it is not—it’s very important that we are not fooled.
Concerning Ukraine: There is nothing better than, I mean, continuing our effort and intensifying out effort indeed so that Ukraine is able to take this opportunity, that Russia military command is a little bit at least confused. Keep also in mind it was said before that Russian military might be actually demotivated by the events. I don’t think so. I think that the normal Russian soldier has no access to social media or media online. They’re not on phones—well, very few are—and even if they were they would not be drawing too many conclusions. So my understanding is that we need to continue and help Ukraine to win this war, because the sooner Russia realizes that it really and truly has lost this war the regime will try to wriggle out. And then it is for us to be vigilant, to not accept that this is now the new and democratic Russia until we really and truly see changes in Russia—and real changes, not what we saw in 1991, accepting for a change which in reality which was not change.
Our view from here: Continue towards Vilnius strongly. Continue after Vilnius strongly. Make sure Ukraine wins. Make sure Russians all understand that they are losing. And then not to be fooled by what comes next. And also, not to be too afraid of what comes next.
Russia is not going to turn into a kind of a tribal competition ground. There will be someone who will replace Putin as we know him in a relatively orderly way and represent the old regime in a new way.
That seems to be what we here in the front row are thinking collectively.
FREDERICK KEMPE: As you were watching this on Saturday, what did you think was going to be the best outcome for Estonia? And where do you think you are right now?
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I am afraid it might be the best outcome that, I mean, Russian people are starting to realize Putin is weak, but they were given a time period to decide what to do about it. Because, indeed, if things had unraveled very quickly like they did in 1991, we would be looking at somebody taking power in Russia today—not Prigozhin, I think he was only able to create disturbances—but somebody else would have stepped into the void and taken responsibility, then we would be already in the position which I am personally and many Estonians are most fearing. And this, our fear, is that everybody in the West again believes this is the new Russia, but it would not have been. It would have been the same Russia with a new face in front of it.
So right now, the current outcome, that we all know Putin is weak and we can prepare ourselves, is much better. So we also stepped up our border controls and everything, but I think we need to stay the course and focus more on what we can do in Ukraine and how we can help Ukraine to benefit from this situation. But I mean, nothing massively changed.
FREDERICK KEMPE: NATO membership for Ukraine in July? Would you move that fast? Maybe not give it there, but the road map? Should this change anything at the Vilnius summit in July?
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Precisely not. I mean, this is what we have been saying from this corner of the world: Let’s do what is right, and let’s stop guessing what is going on and what will happen thereafter in Russia and with Russia. Let’s do what is right. And we have heard hopeful noises also, for example, from France on this subject a few days ago, before even this occasion. Nothing has changed in this sense.
FREDERICK KEMPE: So, Angela Stent, you’ve been following this leader of Russia for a long time. Love to hear your situation report, what you think is going on. Is this just the beginning of a Game of Thrones that we’re going to see? Is this the beginning of the end of Putin? What is your take on all this?
ANGELA STENT: When I look at just what happened on Saturday, I think of the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. So what we saw happening doesn’t compute for me because you had Prigozhin starting off in the last week telling the Russian people that the war was unnecessary, that Ukraine didn’t threaten them, and the reason why Russia went to war with Ukraine is because Russian oligarchs wanted to get their hands on Ukrainian assets.
Then, you know, what Wagner was facing, obviously, was its dissolution and the Ministry of Defense saying that the Wagner fighters had to join the regular armed forces, so that clearly was not to his liking. His forces have done so much of the fighting in Bakhmut.
Then you see him go to Rostov, and the Wagner troops were really welcomed there, and they were like heroes.
Then you have Putin giving this very angry speech on Saturday morning likening what was happening to 1917, to the beginning of the Russian Civil War, to the intervention by Western powers in Russia at that time, saying that the Wagnerites were traitors and that they had to be brought to justice.
And then you have the march on Moscow. You have Prigozhin stopping within two hundred kilometers. And then you suddenly have this announcement by Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary—not by Putin or any one of his colleagues—that an agreement had been reached and that Prigozhin wasn’t going to be tried, he could go to Belarus, and the same would be true for the Wagner troops. I think there were, in the end, about eight thousand of them who had followed him, who would have gone to Moscow. It doesn’t really make any sense at all.
We haven’t seen any of Putin’s close colleagues publicly support him; radio silence in Moscow. We had a video today of the defense minister, Shoigu, allegedly in Ukraine. I’m not sure that anyone has verified that that was from today and not from sometime last week or sometime a few weeks ago. Clearly, one of the major demands that Prigozhin has made is that both Shoigu and Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, should be fired. As far as we know, they haven’t been fired.
So one has to wonder what it was that Prigozhin got for agreeing to stand down and not going to Moscow. One suspects that he was maybe waiting for more indications of support in Moscow. We don’t know if he had a plan about what he would have done had he gone to Moscow. And we do know that Wagner has been very closely related to the GRU, the military intelligence, but there are now people also saying that the FSB was somehow also involved to some extent supporting him. There’s so much that we don’t know.
But I think what we can say is that Putin certainly does look weaker than he did before that. And the fact that the message that Prigozhin has sent has clearly fallen on fertile ground among some of the Russians, even though the public opinion polls show—if you believe them—that a majority of the people still support this war. I think there are certainly more questions. And because we haven’t seen anything from any of his colleagues in supporting him, we have really no clue about what’s going on there.
But I certainly agree that the war in Ukraine will go on. I’m not sure that this necessarily benefits the Ukrainians at this point. I’m going to be very interested to hear what our other colleagues have to say about that. But clearly, the West should continue supporting Ukraine, and we’ll wait and see if there’s any change.
I think most of us believed before this happened that Putin believed that he could wait the West out; that our unity would weaken; and that if he waits to the end of the year, the beginning of next year—and who knows what’s going to happen in the US elections—that that would be to his advantage. I’m not really sure whether he can really believe that anymore. I think there should be a big question mark.
However, I think if this is the beginning of the unraveling of his regime, it’s probably not going to happen quickly. Having said that, of course, anyone who studies Russia knows that you can be surprised. It may be a slower process, but one just does have to assume that this erodes some of the support that he has. But he still has his own national guard, the Rosgvardiya. He’s got three hundred thousand troops that are allegedly loyal to him. So it’s not as if he’s left without any support.
FREDERICK KEMPE: John Herbst, can you give us what your situation report is right now? On the one hand, Putin looks weak. The troops have to question whether they want to die right now for this leader and this country in a time where they’ve just seen what happened over the weekend. On the other hand, you have Prigozhin in Belarus, and there were some rumors that maybe he could open up a new front in Belarus, which would be a great problem for Ukraine. But does Putin really embrace a person he’s called a traitor opening up a new front?
JOHN HERBST: I would underscore that this is certainly a sign of, a) Putin’s weakness; and, b) fissures in the Putin regime—things that have been evident, albeit much less clear to people who don’t follow it closely, since last October, when the extent of the success of Ukraine’s 2022 counteroffensive became clear and Prigozhin began, with some help from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, going after Gerasimov and Shoigu. But Prigozhin became increasingly louder, and already about two-and-a-half months ago he gave a peculiar speech in which he foreshadowed his clear criticism of the war in Ukraine and the unjustifiable pretext for that war. So this has all been building, again, since last fall.
We don’t know what the senior power players in Moscow have been doing and thinking. We do know, however, that this is truly Putin’s war, and very few people—including among his siloviki, closest pals—wanted this big invasion. And everyone understands that Russia’s paid a large price for this, as has Putin’s regime. The interesting thing about Prigozhin is saying this publicly, with at this point no pushback.
One more small indicator of perhaps the continuing weakening of the Putin regime: There is a member of the Duma, a think tanker as well, Sergei Markov, who’s a very reliable indicator of people who are close to Putin, or rather want to be close to Putin, and are trying to position themselves for the future. He’s had several Telegram posts this morning essentially saying that Russian spinmeisters are putting out the following instructions for explaining what happened, such as: It’s all over. This demonstrates the stability and the wisdom of the Putin regime. The fact that he’s putting that out suggests he’s trying to hedge. He doesn’t think that the regime is doing that well, and I think that’s true.
Now, what’s going on in Ukraine and the war? At an absolute minimum, this is a plus for the Ukrainians because the already demoralized Russian soldiers have one more reason to be demoralized. Also—and this actually predates the coup attempt—Wagner has essentially pulled out of the fight after it “took Bakhmut” several weeks ago. And Wagner, whatever its liabilities, remains the most potent force fighting on the field in Ukraine. So them being at least partly out of the fight is important. If now they are going to meekly go into the Ministry of Defense, become part of the regular Russian military, and they will be notably less effective. They’re not going to strengthen the already demoralized troops; they will just be a part of the morass. So this is another plus for Ukraine.
As for what we should do, I mean, my views have not been hidden. I think we should be stronger than we’ve been for the last several years. That predates Joe Biden’s presidency, though it includes Biden. And I think that we should be sending the weapons Ukraine needs to ensure that they can break the land bridge in the next six months. So far, the administration’s not willing to go there. Maybe this will help them move in that direction.
We should also be planning for a much more robust Vilnius NATO summit than Washington seems to be interested in, although the White House has been embarrassed by being behind most of the allies now, including the French, regarding NATO and Ukraine. And they are trying to come up with something, and hopefully they’ll come up with more than they were planning a few weeks ago.
One major part of the debate on our policy towards Ukraine and Russia has been what I consider to be the well-played by the Kremlin-Putin nuclear bluff. The Russians have spent twenty years building the elaborate metaphor of Putin as the rat in a corner who would lash out if cornered. But we just saw what the rat in the corner does when he was confronted with a a flying column heading towards Moscow: He headed for the tall grass. This should also inform our understanding of what Putin might do if Ukraine were to take the land bridge. In other words, I don’t think we have to always have to take into account the possibility of, but we should not be intimidated by, his increasingly hollow nuclear threats.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Angela, does jockeying begin now among the fissures in the Putin regime? What do we know and what’s your reading of the silence?
ANGELA STENT: It really is a black box. I mean, I’m not talking about the very inner circle. We certainly know that there are significant numbers of people among the elite who are very dissatisfied with what’s been happening, not the least because they can’t travel to Europe or the US or whatever, they can’t visit their bank accounts in their homes, and they thought that they were part of this globalized elite and now they’re stuck in Russia and sanctioned, many of them. And I think that was very evident even at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum a couple of weeks ago, how different it was from what it used to be before this war began.
Now, having said that, a lot of those people understand that they can’t leave and have been told that, so they’re stuck. But as for Putin’s very inner circle, we really don’t know much about that at all. I mean, that is Nikolai Patrushev, the head of his security council; probably the heads also of the foreign and domestic intelligence services, the SVR and the FSB. And then there are people who are close friends of Putin who don’t have official jobs in the administration like Yuri Kovalchuk, who owns one of the big banks there. And probably Igor Sechin, who is the head of Rosneft. And those are the people he talks to.
There has been some speculation—when people talk about a potential successor to Putin, people go back now to Sergey Kirienko, who was actually prime minister briefly in 1999 and now is an enthusiastic supporter of the war and has a much more public profile. And there are a few younger governors whose names pop up as potential successors. But of course, until now, you know, Putin hasn’t wanted to be a lame duck, and therefore he clearly hasn’t named that. But again, I come back to the fact that none of the people who hold these positions—and including the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, who’s been very, very quiet, really, since the war began (who would, by the way, if something happened to Putin, he would actually succeed him for the first few months until there was an election)—have come out and supported him.
So I wouldn’t be able to come up with a name for you, but I would say if there’s an orderly succession then you would still have someone coming to power who shares Putin’s views. If there is some discontinuity, then that could all change. But if there’s an orderly one, it would be a similar regime.
Now, would it continue to prosecute the war in Ukraine? I mean, that’s a huge question. Or it might decide that it wanted to think about ways of getting out and saving face. But we really know very little about all of this just because it’s the people who surround him are mainly from the intelligence services, and they know how to suppress information.
FREDERICK KEMPE: So, General Clark first and General Scaparrotti, let’s do this round. What is your situation report?
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: Well, the first thing is to make sure the Russian soldiers know what’s happened so they can be demoralized. One of the things the Russian forces have done is take away the mobile communications from their soldiers when they reach a certain point on the battlefield. So the Ukrainians have been running information operations for some time. They’ve been encouraging Russian soldiers to surrender, threatening them, doing other things. They need to intensify those information operations now, make sure that they take advantage of their situation to exact the most demoralization they can from the Russian forces that they’re facing.
Secondly, got to understand that these Ukrainian forces are facing a huge problem with minefields. Virtually the whole front is mined. They’ve got to find a way through it. That’s slow. It’s painstaking. And we didn’t give them sufficient equipment to do this. In particular, they need more mine-clearing line charges, probably by a factor of ten. The only way you’re going to get through this is to blow your way through it. You can’t have a soldier on his belly with a knife probing for mines and expect you’ll really make a breakthrough on this. And you can’t put your mine-clearing tanks up front in broad daylight, or even at night, and think you can drill a path through this. These are really deep minefields. They can be reinforced with artillery-delivered mines and have been. So this is the significant problem.
The third thing is we need to continue to push equipment to the Ukrainians. In particular, they need 155 artillery systems. Not just the ammunition, the systems. They are in a tough counter-fire fight with Russian artillery. They started the fight outnumbered. They’re now perhaps on par in terms of being able to return shell for shell, but when they take losses, they can’t fix it. If it’s Western, they have to send it out. So they need more tubes. You cannot advance against this kind of a defense without winning the counter-fire battle. They need more air defense that’s available to protect mobile forces. We need to give the ATACMS right away. And we don’t need to announce it. We just need to put it in there. It’s fired from the same launcher, minimal train-up; put a few hundred systems in there and let’s get rid of the Russian reserves and the Russian artillery positions that can be detected.
Are we giving the Ukrainians real time battlefield intelligence? The latest, I believe, is we’re not. But the Brits are, and I guess they’re taking ours. Can we do anything to focus this and get the information down to the individual units that are trying to breach these minefields? If we go back with our imagery records, we know exactly where the defenses are, when they were put in, what was put in there. It doesn’t do any good to have it published in the Financial Times. It has to be down at the tank crewman level, down to sixty-degree coordinates. So if we haven’t done that, we need to do that. So those would be the immediate things on the battlefield.
Where did Prigozhin’s forces go? Now, the newspapers say that we saw this buildup happening. Well, if we saw the buildup happening, surely we’ve got listening devices in there. We can hear who’s talking. We know who they are. What are they saying? We’re not hearing anything from national sources on this. I hope we know where they went. Is Prigozhin really going to Belarus? Is he going to really link up with the nuclear warheads that are there? Is he going to run a coup against leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka? Has this all been a Kabuki dance?
Probably not, but could they make something of it later? Maybe. I’d say the chances are remote on that. I think it’s 90 percent what you see is what there was—a weak chain of command, no real support for Putin, and the Russian military in the field being vulnerable. But if we don’t get that information down to the individual soldier on the Russian side and erode his confidence in his chain of command, then all this talk at high levels about Putin being weak and so forth doesn’t affect the military situation on the ground.
Final point, if I were Ukraine, I would strengthen my observation of what’s going on at the border with Belarus. You just never know.
We’ve got to get Ukraine into NATO. And this looking around for security guarantees that will let us avoid this, it’s like we want to hold back the NATO decision to use it as a bargaining chip with Putin. Surely what we’ve seen here is that Putin is weak. Put it out that Ukraine will join NATO next year. Create some conditions. And if Putin wants to come forward and preemptively surrender rather than have NATO come into Ukraine, good, good. But use the bargaining chip the correct way, not by looking weak but by looking strong, and showing strength to Russia.
FREDERICK KEMPE: I could argue this both ways: that this is a time to really double down in supporting Ukraine because there’s a moment of weakness, but there are some in the administration that would say, no, that could trigger a response, nuclear or otherwise, where out of desperation Putin does something really truly crazy. What is your situation analysis?
GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: I’ve been one that believed that our administration has been too timid. I respect the leadership within NATO, and what we have done for Ukraine, and that we’ve been focused on that. But I think we’ve been too cautious in what we’ve provided Ukraine and when we provided it—i.e., doing it in somewhat of an incremental way.
So because of that, I think this is a real opportunity. And now is the time to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need and they get it quickly. I think we’ve just done this in too slow of a fashion. So now is the time to show strength and now is the time to reinforce them. I would be less concerned about provocation. From my point of view, Putin’s in a very, very bad spot right now, with lots of problems. But I just don’t—I don’t think that supporting Ukraine at this point, exploiting the situation—certainly being aware of indicators—but I don’t believe that that’s a reason for extreme concern.
I would also say that this has got to be undermining the Russian troops’ morale. Certainly, they don’t have full access, but I’m sure the command and them know that there’s things happening. And we have ways within information operations to make sure we get that out. And I would certainly be working those aspects of it. And I hope that we’re helping the Ukrainians be effective at that. And, if I were the Ukrainians, I would exploit this as much as I possibly could.
One of the things that I wonder about, there’s a lot that we don’t know, which has been sad. But it’s interesting to me as this thing unraveled that, you know, typically the Russians put their private armies or commercial armies, if you will, under their intelligence apparatus, under the FSB or those. And that’s what they’ve done throughout history. And so for this to occur, and not see more of a response than we did, even over the indicators over the past couple of weeks, is really surprising to me. And that leads me to believe that there’s a lot that we don’t know about what’s going on.
I was also surprised that Putin didn’t react as quickly as one might expect. So I think there’s a lot that we don’t know yet, and certainly watching it closely. But on the part of the United States, being also somewhat cautious in our response. Let’s wait and see how this unrolls in terms of policy. Having said that, I also would probably be in contact with China to see what their thoughts are on this, and leverage that for their assistance. Because it’s just another indicator that this is a strategic mistake by Putin.
FREDERICK KEMPE: What was China’s response over the weekend?
STEPHEN HADLEY: I don’t think we know. I think China’s initial reaction, from what I’ve seen in the press and that’s my only source, has been very cautious. I think they’re watching and waiting. But this can’t be reassuring to Xi, to see his life partner have a column get within 150 miles of Moscow. So I think this is an opportunity for the administration to get China to double down on a potential effort to pressure Putin to bring this war to an end in a way that involves getting Russian troops out of Ukraine. Because that’s, in a way, the way you save Putin at this point in time. I hope the administration is making that argument to the Chinese.
BRIAN KELLY: How should we be thinking about the EU, US, and China coordinating on a response? Is there some coordination on leverage between the three kind of legs of the stool? And if there is coordination, does that actually create a counter-reaction from Putin kind of lashing out, as in a corner?
GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: I think that should occur. And I think it’s in the manner in which it’s approached as to how Putin reacts to that. I think it’s valuable to collaborate like that. And I think a message from the three could be powerful, from those entities for Putin, informing him. And again, I think part of that is how it is messaged to him. What’s the message? And I think there’s ways to do that that could be helpful. All along I’ve believed that the United States bringing together as many countries as we can to message the stance is always the best route.
JOE NYE: What, if anything, did we learn from the weekend’s events about Lukashenka and his role? I mean, the conventional wisdom has been that Lukashenka was Putin’s puppet. On the other hand, if he has alliances with other factions, and Putin has been weakened, he may have more leeway for Belarusian policy than before. Is he able, or even willing, to protect Prigozhin?
ANGELA STENT: I would caution: we were told that Lukashenka was negotiating all day on Saturday with Prigozhin. And maybe that’s true. One reason why he might have been given that role is because if something goes wrong, then Putin himself wouldn’t get the blame for it. They could always blame Lukashenka if there are things that don’t go the way they want them to do. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see because until now we’ve seen Lukashenka in a very subordinate position to Putin. He’s totally dependent on Putin for staying in power. And therefore, it was surprising to think that he would take any initiative like that.
We don’t know whether Prigozhin really is in Belarus or not. I mean, there was a cryptic message yesterday on his internet platform from Wagner saying that he would communicate with people when he had better cellphone service, which is pretty funny because that raises the question of why he doesn’t have better cellphone service now. So I don’t have a good answer to this. I can’t imagine that there would be any kind of an alliance between Lukashenka and Prigozhin. It’s already been raised, the question of would Prigozhin be using Belarus as a way of going back with his soldiers into Ukraine. But I doubt that, because I think they want to resolve Wagner, the Russian MOD does. So I’m not sure what its future is there.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Prigozhin just denied trying to overthrow the Russian government. And the truth is, all he said was he wanted Gerasimov and Shoigu replaced. In fact, he didn’t talk about Putin at all on Saturday. But, Stephen, I know you wanted to comment on how the talks unfolded.
STEPHEN HADLEY: I will just say what the press was saying over the weekend in answer to Joe’s question. One, Lukashenka said that he spoke with Putin before he undertook this role with Prigozhin. And, secondly, Angela, I saw a press report that said that Lukashenka was supported by Putin’s chief of staff and by the Russian ambassador to Belarus. So while he was the figurehead, I’m not sure he was a disinterested third party negotiating this. It seems to me more he was doing it on instructions and with coaching from Putin forces. But that’s just press reports.
GENERAL JAMES L. JONES: I think one of the big issues as a result of this is the issue of whether Ukraine should join NATO now or later. Prior to this event, I think the consensus was that a NATO membership would come later, although there’d be some affirmation at Vilnius that it would come, and some guarantees. But, you know, in view of Putin’s weakness at this point, I would think that this is a matter that will be openly discussed as to the timing of NATO membership.
Second, on getting the Ukrainians the arms that they need, I completely agree that it should be now, and as quickly as possible. And then I think another question is, what’s the future of the Wagner Group? What are they going to do? And I don’t think that’s been resolved yet. And Belarus’ role is, I think, worthy of waiting to see what happens there. I can’t imagine that an exile to Belarus with whatever guarantees Putin or Lukashenka may have given Prigozhin would have much value. I think Prigozhin’s life expectancy in Belarus would be quite short.
And I’ll say we should really engage with China on this as much as we can, as these things go on, because I’m sure that leader Xi Jinping is watching this unfold with asking himself a lot of questions about the future that China might contemplate on Taiwan.
JOHN HERBST: Regarding Prigozhin and Belarus, whoever took the initiative—whether it was Lukashenka trying to get some leverage or the Kremlin seeking to use Lukashenka, this is kind of a coup for him. Since his failed election, after which he claimed himself president despite the results in 2020, he has become more and more under Putin’s control. So this may give him a little bit of a standing to push back. But Prigozhin in Belarus is going to be under Putin’s control in some fashion.
A lot of people are speculating that he is not long for this world, and that’s possible because Putin looks weak for having allowed Prigozhin to get out of this mess after he launched the coup. But there’s a good reason for Putin not to take him down, because Prigozhin remains a figure of some popularity and legitimacy in Russia. And while Putin could try and do this, you might say, behind closed doors, everyone will assume it’s him. And I think Putin has to worry about that.
FREDERICK KEMPE: President Kaljulaid, you’re closer to Belarus than any of us are. How do you look at the situation in Belarus, Prigozhin going there, and the whole role that Lukashenka could end up playing, or Prigozhin could end up playing, on that long border that Belarus has with Ukraine?
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I actually don’t think Lukashenka is playing any important role here in this game. I’m quite sure that he was not the initiator, and he was not the negotiator. He was chosen as someone who could resolve, immediately, the problem. And to resolve the problem immediately was, indeed, to get Prigozhin somehow out of the way. I definitely don’t think that any promises given to him relating to Shoigu or Gerasimov will be kept. And definitely he’s just put aside and then those people who really decide, they will think about how to handle this situation.
Whether Prigozhin’s twenty-five thousand soldiers will even follow him to the region, which is now indicated, in Belarus where they would have a new camp, I have serious doubts. Many might actually go back to Syria and to Africa, and some might take up the opportunity to join the regular army. But those who will go there, I don’t see them anymore as a risk to Ukraine, after what Prigozhin has been saying. That, I mean, this war was a mistake, it is just serving Shoigu, it is serving the Russian oligarchs who is enriching themselves. I do think Lukashenka is a pawn. And I do think that Prigozhin will face his fate sooner rather than later.
FREDERICK KEMPE: Could somebody give me the potential impact on Africa? The Wagner Group is playing an outsized role there. The troops—are they listening to Prigozhin? Is he still their commander? Is Putin their commander? But there are knock-on impacts all over the world from this.
STEPHEN HADLEY: I think part of it is the money. It’s been a terrific source of income for Prigozhin and supporting his forces. And the question is whether people will decide this is now up for grabs. I suspect Putin is already getting his cut. The question is whether others will want some kind of cut. Don’t know. There’s a question of when we talk about incorporating the Wagner Group into the Ministry of Defense, does that include the forces in Africa? Because for the moment, Putin and Russia have been basically one step behind and have had a certain amount of deniability. Do they really want to take explicit responsibility for what the Wagner troops have been doing in Africa?
So I think there are a lot of questions. I don’t think we know the answer at this point in time.
Wagner has become a very important arm of the Russian state in terms of projecting its influence, particularly on the African continent. Wagner owns very lucrative gold, diamond, and other precious minerals, assets in the Central African Republic, in other parts of Africa. It’s very active in Sudan, in a number of places. It’s not only that Prigozhin and the other commanders benefit from this financially, but so does the Kremlin. I mean, we know that.
So I would find it very hard to believe that they’re going to suddenly dismantle Wagner, particularly at this time when the Russian regular forces are fighting in Ukraine—and have someone else take over their activities in Africa. So I think this is something to watch very carefully. Will they continue doing what they’re doing there? And they’ve expanded their activities in the last year. Or is there going to be another big struggle, because we’re talking about huge assets and then the support of a number of authoritarian leaders there who are very dependent on Moscow.
FREDERICK KEMPE: What are the odds that we’re actually not going to have a permanent break at all between Putin and Prigozhin? Putin said things about Prigozhin on Saturday, but Prigozhin said nothing critical about Putin at all. They’ve been awfully close for awfully long. Is this really the breaking point between the two of them, or not?
ANGELA STENT: Yeah, so, I mean, Prigozhin did criticize Putin a few weeks ago, indirectly. He talked about the war not going well, and then about “the happy grandfather” who’s a little bit removed from reality. So this was seen to get a gentle criticism of Putin. I’m not sure that there will be a break between them. And they have been dependent on each other. And we get back to the question, there are obviously great tensions within the inner circle there, between the ministry of defense and other groups. We’ll just have to wait and see. I mean, we might see Prigozhin now recant and then come back to the field. Or he could meet with an unfortunate accident any day.
JOHN HERBST: There’s also a significant Wagner presence in Syria and in Libya. And that, apparently, has not changed in recent weeks. And there are vested interests. Both commanders in the field and others who have profited from Wagner’s activities in the Middle East and in Africa. And chances are, those activities will continue. They’ll just make sure that Prigozhin’s hands are not on them.
GENERAL JAMES L. JONES: What’s the feeling about, going into Vilnius, about NATO membership for Ukraine now that this has happened?
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: Everything that we can do to fast-forward the messaging towards Russia, that they are really losing everything on every ground, this is what we need to do. And therefore, the clearer the message Ukraine will join NATO, the better. There is no other way forward, to drive home to Russians—to ordinary Russians—that they really are losing.
FREDERICK KEMPE: How do you navigate the following? The argument is that you can’t bring a country into NATO when part of the country is occupied, or it’s at war with somebody. On the other hand, all that does is reinforce Putin’s position to continue to occupy and to continue to be at war. And I just wonder if there is some sort of workaround here, so that we don’t give him the wrong incentives.
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I’m quite sure that whatever linguistic acrobatics we would use, Russia will understand our intent. I mean, we will continue. We will help Ukraine to get rid of partial occupation. And we will help Ukraine to join NATO. We don’t need to be specific about what will be the conditions, what will be the timeframe. But I think we need to be very clear that we see Ukraine in NATO when they have restored their territorial integrity. But also pointing out that history knows occasions when countries have joined while having been partially occupied or broken, like for example Germany.
So I don’t think that trying to be particularly nimble with the words will help. Russians will get the message, one way or the other. One message is we are weak, we are afraid. And the other message is, we are strong, and we will persevere, and we will make this happen for Ukraine in a safe timeframe, in a safe format. And there is no third way, I believe. And my feeling is that in Europe for months, thinking also back to discussions which we’ve had here in Europe for a couple of months, there has been—also in Germany and in France—kind of coming to the common conclusion, which is not publicly mentioned yet, but there is no other way that Ukraine has to be within NATO.
STEPHEN HADLEY: One of the lessons I think I would draw from our experience in 2008 at Bucharest where we, on the one hand the Germans and the French, split on this issue of a membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia: I think rather than being a provocation for Putin it was an opportunity for Putin, because he saw that the French and the Germans were really unalterably opposed to any near-time consideration of membership for Ukraine. And he took that as an opportunity. It is interesting that the only two countries Putin has invaded in this neighborhood, Georgia and Ukraine, are the ones that are not in NATO.
So I think it actually was an opportunity. But the lesson for it is that whatever comes out of Vilnius has to be unified. We cannot have a split between one group of allies and another. It would present another opportunity for Putin. But furthermore, it might undermine the existing steadfast and, I think, very strong consensus between the United States and Europe for support for Ukraine. So I think that that’s the risk. So it’s got to be won by consensus. And there will be those in the administration who will say that if we move forward with NATO membership for Ukraine in any way now, it will bail Putin out because it will be to justify and seem to validate his notion that he is defending Russia against a NATO moving eastward.
I don’t agree with that. I think we’re going to have to answer that argument. There’s a proposal that Sandy Vershbow and Ian Brzezinski did that basically said you would upgrade the current relationship between NATO and Ukraine. You would set a timetable for the next NATO summit to develop two things: One, a robust plan for readying Ukraine for NATO membership and, separately, supporting and institutionalizing acceleration of support militarily for Ukraine so that by that same NATO date it is in a position, as best as it can, to defend itself by itself. Which is the commitment we’ve really given to Israel.
I think there is something there. And it also puts a time out there where we would consider firmly bringing Ukraine into NATO. I think something like that may be able to get a consensus within the alliance. But I do think we need a consensus. We don’t need a falling out among US and the European allies at this point on anything over
FREDERICK KEMPE: What are you watching now? I mean, this is a difficult situation to sort out. What are you going to watch in the next few days? I’m certainly going to watch whether the Chief of Staff Gerasimov and the Secretary of Defense Shoigu stay in power. And I’m going to watch where Prigozhin appears and what Putin and Prigozhin say about each other.
GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: I mean, I’d certainly watch the leadership. I’m surprised, frankly, that Shoigu and Gerasimov have stayed in positions as long as they can. So I think to see how this shakes out with them, given that Prigozhin’s attacks have been directed primarily at them throughout this time. The second thing is just watching the responsiveness of their chain of command and their troops, and what we can learn about their performance and their response to this. What do they know? I think that will be quite interesting.
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK: I think it’s very strange that we haven’t heard anything about the people—the troops in Rostov. And they surrendered their garrison to Prigozhin. Is that going to be acceptable or are they going to be punished for that? And again, we’ve got to locate those Wagner troops. Where are they? What are they doing? And where is Prigozhin? What is his plan? So those are things I’d be watching.
One thing on NATO. I do think that the Vershbow-Brzezinski plan is good, but not sufficient. I think, to go back to what the president said, we’ve got to have an agreement they will be in NATO. Maybe it’s not in twenty-four months. Maybe it’s not in twelve months. But we’ve got to put NATO in there. We don’t want to try to push Ukraine into an Israel solution, and I hear that being discussed. That’s not a lasting solution in Europe. That’s a gray zone in Europe. They need to be in NATO. And we need to say it at this summit.
I’m in France, and the French are telling me that France wants them in NATO and the Americans are saying to the French: You’re trying to escape your responsibilities by making us take your security responsibilities. So they believe that our administration is ducking the responsibility for bringing Ukraine into NATO. That’s what I’m getting from French people associated with the leadership.
FREDERICK KEMPE: So I can share with this group, because President Zelenskyy allowed us to use this on the record and John Herbst, John Rogers, and General David Petraeus were in our meeting with Zelenskyy a couple of weeks ago. And he said that if NATO doesn’t come further than it’s agreed to come so far—and that included the Vershbow-Brzezinski piece, which I thought was quite good and forward-leaning—but he would not be able to come to Vilnius because the Ukrainian people would consider it a betrayal of them; that there they are, dying on the frontlines in order to stop an authoritarian who threatens us all and threatens freedoms more generally, and that they really need a stronger sign and stronger security guarantees for him to actually come to the summit, which I thought was very interesting. And it was in an off-record conversation, and then we went back to him later and I asked whether I could use it on record, and his people said that they were willing to do that.
So it’s not that he’s anti-NATO. I mean, without the US and the US’s support, he wouldn’t be able to fight the war right now. But on the other hand, this is a difficult time for Ukraine as well, as you can well imagine.
JOHN HERBST: Watch Prigozhin very closely, watch Putin very closely. I’d also be looking for any statements coming from any of the siloviki—Patrushev, Dvornikov, people who are usually quiet—but see if there’s any indication there.
But the one place where you have people who are willing to talk is on Telegram and the Russian military bloggers, who have often been criticizing the way the war has been conducted but not, in fact, the decision to go to war. So they are worth watching because they could provide some indication of where developments are going to head.
PRESIDENT KERSTI KALJULAID: I wouldn’t be watching Shoigu and Gerasimov. I think they are safer in their jobs for the next months than they have been for the last year because Putin needs to save face, and giving in to Prigozhin would be really not something.
I think I would watch whether Prigozhin is alive two weeks or a month from now, because the only way for Putin to reestablish that he’s still strong with the Russian people would be, actually, that he would be able to show that he was able to deal with Prigozhin—somehow. And he has to demonstrate that, some way, somehow. If he’s not able to do it, then I think we should really be watching how Putin gets weaker and weaker, and who are the people who will then speak out against him.
For example, Russian nationalists who have been strongly supporting the war in Moscow, the really radical, you would say Russian neo-Nazi groups, have been yesterday also criticizing Putin. This is new.
So things will continue. Putin will either be weakened, or he will be able to demonstrate somehow that he has regained the upper hand. My guess is he will not be able to, so his power will kind of be downgraded gradually and then we will see something happening when the rest of the decisionmakers decide they can do without him. That is something which I think is the most probable. But Shoigu was inspecting the troops, he’s been visible, rather than before he wasn’t, actually, so I think they are safe in their jobs for a couple of weeks.
ANGELA STENT: I am going to be watching whether Shoigu and Gerasimov stay in place, and they probably will. I will be watching to see whether Prigozhin resurfaces, where he is. And I will also be watching to see what any of the siloviki around Putin, what they’re saying. And I’ll be watching Putin, too—where does he appear, what does he say, what does he not say.
And let me just add my two cents: I do not think that the Israel solution is the solution for Ukraine, and I think it certainly has to get into NATO sooner rather than later.
STEPHEN HADLEY: I want to watch what we do. First, my view is it’s not “Israel” as a substitute for NATO; it’s NATO membership plus the kind of support for Ukraine we give Israel. So in my view, it’s NATO plus “Israel.” We need to try to get that out of Vilnius, but it needs to be a consensus among the alliance. And the message, I think, to the Russians is if you don’t like this direction this is heading, then get out of Ukraine.
Secondly, I think we’ve got to watch whether the US administration is going to take the advice from General Clark and General Scaparrotti and really ramp up our support militarily for Ukraine so they can take advantage of the situation.
And, three, monitoring Russian troop morale and everything we can do to encourage its undermining.